Staying relevant in the changing business of law

Peter Chemis looks back on the decade he spent leading Buddle Findlay, and shares why lawyers and law firms sometimes need to keep their egos in check

Staying relevant in the changing business of law
Throughout the decade that Peter Chemis led Buddle Findlay, he’s seen the professional services environment, especially the business of law, change significantly. This is probably why he doesn’t pretend to know exactly what Buddle Findlay will be in the future.

“When I look into the future and wonder what will happen to large law firms, [I realise] I don’t have all the answers,” he says.

Yet the veteran lawyer and executive, who has just stepped down from his role as the national chairman of the top firm, is sure about one thing.

“We will most certainly be here,” he says.

What gives him certainty despite all the change he says he’s seen? Perhaps it’s how he’s watched his firm perform through challenges that keeps him assured.

Chemis says that the biggest tests the business has faced have come from it trying to stay on top of the professional services environment. The market has changed extensively in the years he led the firm, he says, demanding that the business be kept abreast and moving forward.

“In the last 10 years, we have seen an incredible growth in in-house counsel. We have also seen incredible changes in service delivery and the emergence of sophisticated and formal panels. It has changed remarkably,” he says. “But that just poses a new set of challenges, and the good firms out there have had to change the way they behave to ensure that they deliver what is asked for by their clients.”

He is confident that large law firms will continue to have an important role in the market.

“I don’t think that it follows that big law firms are going to shrink and or that they are going to lose their work in-house. I just think it is uncertain, and I think that those law firms who can evolve and give clients what they need and want in the right way at the right price [will succeed],” he says. “Large, well-run law firms can deliver incredible and sophisticated product in very short timeframes.”

In addition to mindful change in how clients deal with their partner law firms, the market has also changed as a reaction to unforeseen events. This has added yet another layer to the landscape law firms such as Buddle Findlay have had to navigate.

“We’ve gone through the global economic crisis and we’ve gone through big earthquakes in Christchurch and Wellington. Our biggest challenge has been adapting quickly to what was in front of us in terms of market conditions and client expectations,” Chemis says. “We have coped by focusing almost entirely on what our clients need or most want.”

It’s leading a skilled team that can quickly adjust to give clients results that they need that Chemis says he’s most proud of. That, and the firm’s successful effort to enhance its collaboration, which is essential given the firm’s large offices across New Zealand.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we have created a more collaborative culture internally,” he says. “We have three large offices across the country, and we have achieved really good dialogue, openness, and transparency between our offices such that our clients are getting better results. Work is going to the right areas, and our clients are getting the right specialists doing their work. That is heartening for our business and our clients.”

In many aspects, the firm is now very different, Chemis says. Much of that difference is in the way the firm is structured, and the way lawyers and other staff work as a team.

“We have a flatter structure; we have much more transparency; and you can’t operate in our business any more like a barrister. You can't come to work and not be part of our framework. You’ve actually got to buy into it and participate,” he says. “Law firms are known for strong and egocentric individuals who have their own style – and we have that – but we also have a group of partners who are committed to playing the same tune. In that respect, I think we've adapted for the better.”

Even with all the talk about change, however, Chemis says that the firm itself has stayed the way it has always been in other respects. It’s retained its strong people culture, which to Chemis means that it looks after its people and after its clients. Buddle Findlay has also maintained its focus on high-quality service.

“I think that the heart of Buddle Findlay that I knew as a young lawyer, and that I knew when I came in as chair, remains in place,” Chemis says.

He also shares one guiding principle: the balance lawyers and law firms must understand to succeed in this environment, that has helped him guide Buddle Findlay through the sea of changes the years have brought.

“I think lawyers forget that it's not their show and they're there to help clients do their jobs or achieve their outcomes. Lawyers often lose perspective on that and actually assume they have a much greater role than they do in reality,” Chemis says. “At Buddle Findlay, I think we have achieved a nice balance by always remembering that our job as a service provider is to help our clients do their work.”

He says that understanding this could spell the difference in how much success a law firm achieves.

“That’s the trick of it – remembering that you’re a service provider. I think that the good law firms out there who can understand that it’s not their gig, and they’re not in charge, and understand that they are working within someone else's framework, will have more success because of that attitude and focus,” he says. “It must be very irritating for general counsel and clients to have law firms feeling that they have some entitlement and rights to this work and it’s their work, when really they are merely paid advisers.”

Remembering that they are there to help and not run the whole show will also help law firms develop client relationships, Chemis says. He also believes that the right mix of price, delivery, and expertise will determine which law firms succeed.

“People sometimes say that price isn’t really an issue. Mostly that’s wrong. In this day and age, specialisation, ability to deliver, and the cost of delivery are all important factors,” he says.

All of these are especially important now, as Chemis says he sees the business of law evolving more. The shifts in the market bring an element of uncertainty to the firm, including how big it would be in the future.

“I don’t know whether we will be bigger or smaller,” he says. “…But if I was betting, I would say we will be slightly smaller but more refined.”

With that, Chemis can rest easy handing the reins over to the next Buddle Findlay national chairman.

Peter Chemis

Related stories:
Buddle Findlay elects new national chairman
Buddle Findlay chairman steps down

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